Logan: Timeless sports tales make great gift options
As a middle school English teacher and coach who moonlights as a sports reporter, I’ve been lucky.
I’ve been able to combine my biggest passions into three jobs, taking a little bit from each to flavor the others. My love of writing finds itself not just pushing my stories but also in forming test questions or essay subjects — trying to find the right words that will spark some synapses in a 12- or 13-year-old’s mind. My love of sports flavors my metaphors and similes when teaching figurative language. I get to watch how some of the best Sunflower League and Kaw Valley League coaches go at their jobs and then see if I can borrow something I like for use in practice or game situations for my middle school teams.
But it is my love for reading that unites all three worlds. I am a voracious — if not ploddingly-paced — reader. I love books of all kinds: classics, young adult fiction, non-fiction, social commentary, and — oh yes — sports. I love sports books by coaches, by athletes, by sportswriters, and even by fans. I love sports books about legends, about strategy, about rivalries, and about once-in-a-lifetime seasons, series or games. From these books I try to recall just what it was in the telling of them that was so compelling, and I try to do my best potpourri of all these styles.
Since we are approaching the holiday season and many of you may have that “hard-to-shop-for” sports fan on your list, I thought I might share a list of some of my favorite sports books of all time. Some of them are currently in stock at local bookstores or at online services such as Amazon. Some are likely out of print, but — if you can find an affordable version — are worth the online search. For what it’s worth, here are some of the sports books that have stuck with me since I started seriously reading sportswriting, some 29 years ago.
“The Red Smith Reader,” by Red Smith, Random House, Copyright 1982 — The great Red Smith earned his start in St. Louis before achieving legendary status as a sportswriter in New York at the New York Times. The way Smith writes, you can just picture the correction pencil between his teeth. His interviews with athletes are like long, relaxed conversations leaning against a barstool. Before sportswriters became the cult of personality that you see on ESPN’s “Around the Horn” or other shows where the writer is more interested in marketing his name, Smith was the be all and end all of sportswriters.
“A Civil War,” by John Feinstein, Back Bay Books, Copyright 1996 — Feinstein spent a year with the service academies Army and Navy learning the history of the schools and their great rivalry. I came away from this book with a huge amount of respect for the young men and women who force themselves through the rigorous requirements the service academies demand and a sort of secret unfulfilled yearning to have been able to do the same thing myself.
“Fathers Playing Catch With Sons,” by Donald Hall, North Point Press, Copyright 1985 — Just like it sounds, this is a book of essays on sport and family by a man of letters whose poet and novelist peers think he’s crazy for investing so much time in an endeavor that “doesn’t mean anything.” Like the final scene in a Field of Dreams, there’s at least one essay in here guaranteed to make the saltiest of old salts tear up and wish for one more game of catch.
“Missing Links,” by Rick Reilly, Doubleday Press, Copyright 1996 — Reilly has become a polarizing figure in recent years with many thinking his work has come off as arrogant in recent years. I’m not one of those, but even if you are, this work of fiction about a group of down-and-out golfers working against “the man” is hilarious and filled with humor you don’t have to be a golf aficionado to “get” (though it doesn’t hurt). Filled with laugh-out-loud moments.
“Hardball: A Season in the Projects,” by Daniel Coyle, HarperSpotlight, Copyright 1993 — Turned into an awful movie starring Keanu Reeves, this novel about bringing baseball into the poorest regions of inner-city Chicago is much grittier and meaner than the cheesy Hollywood schlock that was put out in its stead. The project follows the adventures of six semi-yuppie males who try to bring teams and a league together in the face of tremendous odds. The kids are the characters who really stick with you. Years later, the scene of the author’s team heading to a baseball camp in rural Iowa and being wide-eyed by the space, the place, and the sunshine, still sticks with me.
“The Last Amateurs,” by John Feinstein, Little, Brown & Company, Copyright 2000 — Another Feinstein novel that I truly enjoyed. I was a little hesitant to read this one as I was disappointed by The Punch by Feinstein, but it dealt with one of my favorite subjects: college basketball. Like in A Civil War, Feinstein puts the spotlight on college athletes who normally wouldn’t get it. In 1999, the Patriot League — an NCAA Division I conference featuring such schools as Lehigh, Lafayette, Army, Navy, Bucknell — is still trying to put off becoming a full-scholarship league. In other words the Patriot League is the one conference in Division I where most players are not on athletic scholarships, despite the ever creeping realization that they may have to soon go that way to stay competitive. The players are again the most intriguing characters and the sacrifices that they make just to be able to play the game they love at the highest competitive level is staggering.
“My Old Man and the Sea,” by Daniel and David Hays, Algonquin Books, Copyright 1995 — The story of a father and son who decide to sail 17,000 miles. They sail most of it together before the father must relinquish control to the son and let him finish the journey on his own. Being stuck out in the ocean with one of your parents for 17,000 miles may not be how you want to spend your holidays, but what this father and son go through and the change in their relationship because of it makes the story worthwhile.
“Among the Thugs,” by Bill Buford, Vintage Books, Copyright 1991 — Buford immersed himself in English soccer hooligan fandom and became witness to the frightening but alluring power of the most violent of English soccer gangs. Buford was at the front line of some of the most infamous soccer riots in Europe and very nearly became a casualty (and criminal) himself. Not an uplifting read, but a thoroughly involving one.
“Every Week A Season,” by Brian Curtis, Ballantine Books, Copyright 2004 — There are no snippets of wisdom in this book; no legendary allegories from famous coaching characters. What this book is though, is a fascinating look at Game Week for nine high profile Division I football programs. Curtis was granted unlimited access to each of these programs and spent time detailing meetings, practices, drills, and preparations for nearly a dozen regular-season games. After reading this book, you will be amazed how all the different parts of the mighty machine that is a football program come together on Game Day.
“Friday Night Lights,” by H.G. Bissinger, HarperPerennial, Copyright 1990 — THE classic high school football non-fiction novel follows the Odessa Permian Panthers through the 1988 season. Gritty, inspiring, heartbreaking, bittersweet — all those adjectives apply. This book will show you just HOW big Texas high school football is and make you wonder if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
“Mad As Hell,” by Mike Lupica, Putnam Press, Copyright 1996 — Though a bit dated, many of the problems with American sport and how it has gotten away from the fans are voiced here. Looking back on it, we are still ticked off about many of the same things we were mad about in 1996. Lupica was spot on in identifying the problems with sports in America and how it was not connecting as much with the non-millionaire fans.
“In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle,” by Madeleine Blais, Warner Books, Copyright 1996 — The true tale of the Amherst High School Lady Hurricanes — a team that was always good, but not quite good enough and their final attempt to make an impact at the state level. An involving read that shows you the bonds that must be made between players in order to create trust. Another group of kids for whom you will feel good supporting.
“Huddle: Fathers, Sons, and Football,” by Andrew Malcolm, Simon and Schuster, Copyright 1992 — Like Fathers Playing Catch With Sons, only with football.
“You Gotta Have Wa,” by Robert Whiting, Vintage Departures, Copyright 1990 — A clever, funny study of the American pastime in Japan and how Japanese besuboru has taken many American expatriate players by surprise. The traditions that are welcomed in the Japanese version of baseball sometimes run counter the intuition of American players and fans, and the negotiating of the line between the two worlds can sometimes be frustrating and, sometimes, hilarious.